Archive | June, 2013

Baba Salah: Dangay

26 Jun

The New Yorker likes to call itself the greatest magazine there ever was. It may well be right, and if so, it’s because of pieces like John Lee Anderson’s on what’s happening in Mali: Letter from Timbuktu: State of Terror.

The only thing I’d like to see more than Anderson’s copy would be his expense account — exactly how do you verify receipts from Bamako? (easier perhaps than war zones; Anderson filed last year from Syria.) There’s been a lot written about Mali, but Anderson’s account is to others what In Memory of Elizabeth Reed is to a three-verse, two-chorus top 40 hit. One of the above has more substance than the other.

Anderson’s essay is complete with the politics, history and nuances that make up Mali’s story. If you need the abridged version, know that the northern half of the African country was taken over by Islamist radicals and then liberated, somewhat, by France earlier this year.

While in power, by all accounts the radicals banned music and threatened the musicians, many of whom fled south. Mali is the home of the late Ali Farka Toure and hundreds of other musicians most of us don’t know (including Baba Salah, who plays a prominent part at the end of Anderson’s report). I’ve never been to Mali — maybe someday to the Festival in the Desert — but Mali without music sounds as if it would be like a Jack Russell Terrier without its voice — quiet and sad.

The situation is still tenuous in Mali. Music is back, but in the north many of the musicians aren’t. They still don’t feel safe returning. Which brings us to the point of this essay. Salah is a Malian musician with at least one fan in the States, according to Anderson’s essay: Jackson Browne (I’m old enough to remember that once upon a time the easiest way to alienate the women I worked with was to disparage Jackson Browne).

Anderson interviewed Salah for his story — you can’t write well about Mali without writing about the music. And Salah told Anderson how he acquired his guitar.

In Anderson’s words (from Browne’s words to Salah’s words): “In 2000, he was on his first trip outside Mali, and in New York . . . the singer/songwriter Jackson Browne came to watch. ‘Afterward he called me over said, ‘You play like an angel. What can I do for you,’ ” Baba Salah told me. ‘I didn’t know what to say. He said, ‘It’s OK. I know what to do.’ So later he flew from California to here (Mali). I was living like a bachelor in a really small room. We played together. He said to me, ‘This is the guitar I play, and I want you to have it.’ Baba Salah had played Browne’s guitar ever since.”

Anderson said the guitar Browne gave Salah is black and white, which means it’s apparently the one Salah used in the video above (follow along if your French is better than mine; apologies, Monsieur Minault. I should have paid more attention).

The song, Dangay (Dangaye on the link; apparently a vowel is lost in translation), is the title track of Salah’s latest album. Dangay, according to Anderson, means north, and in the song Salah asks listeners to pray for that region of his country.

Amen to that.


The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses

24 Jun
The page on The Legend of Zelda  from the program at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in Atlanta.

The page on The Legend of Zelda from the program at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in Atlanta.

Thirty years ago I told a friend I would drive four hours across four states to see The Kinks for a fourth time, even though I had seen them just days previously. “You must really like The Kinks,” he said.

I did, but on the day of the show, it didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. I had to work the next day and my car was no more reliable than a Jim Morrison appearance at practice (can you see Morrison channeling his inner Allen Iverson to say: “Practice? We’re talking about practice?”). I canceled, and I went home to play Sleepwalker and Village Green Preservation Society on the turntable.

For the next 30 years I never traveled more than two hours to see a concert, with the exception of a four-hour each-way jaunt to Miami to see Bruce Hornsby, which I excused because of the chance to eat Cuban food.

I’ve now matched that and topped that in the last seven months, if only because of my son, who loves the Legend of Zelda music as much as I ever have The Who or Steely Dan or Sonny Rollins. He’s 14, an age when I was just moving past The Monkees and on to the Chicago Transit Authority (sorry CTA, but that’s what they called the band, and after that second album, and Make Me Smile, you should have been honored instead of threatening to sue).

My son and his three best friends traveled four hours, with parental supervision, to Miami to see Legends of Zelda last winter (where he ordered his Cuban meal in Spanish; if I ever had a second language when going to concerts, it was stoner) and seven hours to Atlanta to see them again earlier this month.

It seems only fair. I’ve taken him to see Marcus Roberts, The Who and Leo Kottke, and he’s appreciated it all — marveling at Roberts’ piano playing, savoring the power of the drumming in Quadrophenia and laughing at all of Kottke’s jokes (and enjoying the picking, too).

He’s taken me to see the music he loves, and I can only appreciate the education. Legends of Zelda sounds classicial to this untrained ear, but my fellow traveling parent called it cinematic. There’s an orchestra and they play the music that accompanies the video games — I supposed it helps if you’ve played the video games, but I’m still waiting for the chomping music that accompanies Ms. Pac-Man.

I watched the orchestra and listened but I also watched the boys watching the orchestra and the videos accompanying it (there’s a character in the videos called Naba, I believe, who kept reminding me of the Boston Red Sox’s Daniel Nava, because he was small and carried something in his hand to swing with; fortunately, Navi swung and missed more than Nava). They loved it all.

The composer said he loved three things growing up: music, video games and movies, and Symphony of the Goddesses attempted to combine all three. I know of at least one spectator with whom he succeeded.

Afterward, the boys didn’t want to leave. Fans milled around in costumes, and the boys found a celebrity poster on YouTube they followed. They chatted, took pictures, bought posters, meandered about the lobby. We stayed until they told us to leave, and then we stayed outside the arena some more until hunger overrode euphoria.

And then, at an 11:30 dinner, we talked some more about the concert and what they played and didn’t play and the differences in the two (I said I had recalled a song from the first concert called Happy Face, which none of the boys remembered. Finally they realized I was referring to Happy Mask. They corrected me, but I think they were impressed the old guy remembered as much as he did. Or not.)

I was thinking about our road trips and my son’s appreciation for music yesterday after dropping him off at music camp, unable or unwilling to leave the parking lot. He’s among the youngest at the camp, and they put four kids in a rectangular space that makes a Motel 6 room seem spacious. It was as cramped and wild as a freshmen dorm, which apparently it is from September-May.

Three times I started to put the car in reverse and three times I stopped. I couldn’t leave. My wife, who couldn’t go with because of work, would simply have sobbed a little and moved on. I fretted a lot and stayed put.

And then I remembered the excitement that emanated from my favorite percussionist when we arrived at camp, and how confidently he strode through auditions and registration. And it reminded me of the joy I’ve seen on his face when it’s involved music — listening to Zelda or playing the piano or being honored by his music teacher at his final middle school concert.

And I remembered the day after we got home from the first concert, how he played for me song after song after song on YouTube. There was one with a Spanish style theme, and I told him how much I enjoyed it. Five months later, he and his best friends played it at that final middle school concert — they arranged it, practiced it and performed it, with their teacher’s permission, themselves.

Music is one of his loves, too.

My wife gives me credit, but I’m not so sure. (Maybe a little, but he clearly declined to absorb my love of sports, and that’s OK). All the music in the house he’s never played, all the music I’ve played in the car he’s never acknowledged.

But almost two years ago we asked him what music he wanted to play for his bar mitzvah. He said he wanted two songs: Birdland by Maynard Ferguson (which he learned at school; if he had learned it from me, it would have been by Weather Report) and My Favorite Things. The jazz version, he said, which could have meant nothing other than Coltrane, and which he must have heard in the car or at home, even while his head was down watching his video games.

All that time, he was listening; he really can multitask.

I thought about all that, called my wife, and finally left, driving the four hours back. Today my son texted excitedly to say he made the second of three bands — quite an achievement, given his youth.

Sometimes music can make you smile for a long, long, time.

Bob Dylan: Only A Pawn In their Game

14 Jun


It was 50 years ago this week that Medgar Evers was murdered outside his Mississippi home. Within six months Bob Dylan had penned, performed, recorded and included on the album The Times They Are a-Changing his song about Evers’ killing, Only a Pawn In Their Game.

Great art is often borne of tragedy, but Dylan’s song wasn’t the only art borne of this one. Writer Eudora Welty, a native Mississippian, wrote a short story Where Is the Voice Coming From on the day she learned of Evers’ killing; Welty said “the short story was the only thing she had ever written in anger,” according to Jerry Mitchell’s blog at

The story was published by The New Yorker less than a month later, shortly after the arrest of Byron de la Beckwith for the murder. The similarities between the accused and the protagonist in Welty’s story were so strong — even though Welty wrote it before even being aware of Beckwith — the magazine changed the names and the name of the town for legal reasons.

“No, Welty didn’t know De La Beckwith’s name or what he looked like,” wrote Jarvis DeBerry at “But Welty was from Mississippi and of Mississippi, and she knew Mississippi. So even if she didn’t know the name or look of the assassin, she was dead certain she knew how he’d sound.”

“I says to my wife, ‘Just reach and turn it off. And be quiet. You don’t need to set and look at a black n—–r face no longer than you want to or listen to what you don’t want to hear. It’s a free country.’ ”

That’s how Welty’s story began. Dylan’s song began “A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood” and he sang it that summer, less than a month after Evers’ murder, at a voter registration drive in Mississippi for the first time, according to

He sang it again that summer at the festival in Newport, according to the website, and at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28 before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington — perhaps one of the few times Dylan performed when his words weren’t the most memorable of a day.

Dylan’s album was released early the next year, and Beckwith was tried twice that year for Evers’ murder. Both resulted in hung juries; it didn’t help the prosecution that segregationist governor Ross Barnett shook hands with the defendant, in front of the jury, before the deliberations, according to

More than two decades passed and Beckwith served time in another case of potential vioience born of bigorty. Anyone younger than 30 might find it hard to believe, but the case to try Beckwith a third time for Evers’ murder was fueled by a newspaper. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s stories spurred the final trial, and if you’ve seen Ghosts of Mississippi, you know how it ends.

It’s doubtful Beckwith had the revelation Dylan predicted in Only a Pawn In Their Game that the killer would. By all accounts, he died unrepentant in prison in 2001.

“But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Two years after Beckwith died, Dylan returned to Mississippi to perform at a music festival. He was 62, and Evers’ older brother Charles was 80, and they had never met. Donna Ladd, who midwifed the two’s meeting 40 years after Medgar’s murder, described it in heartwarming fashion at

“(Dylan) warmly grasped Mr. Evers’ hand and held it for a good five minutes while they talked eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart, man-to-man. They both nodded a lot and seemed emotional. I didn’t try to get closer. This was between two giants of the Civil Rights Movement, and the man they—we—had lost to hatred. I blinked back tears.”


On the death of Mulgrew Miller

2 Jun


I have a routine, perhaps morbid, upon hearing of the death of a prominent musician: I play their music. I scour my collection, and when I find it lacking, I listen to Pandora and YouTube until I’ve exhausted it.

This week I’ve been listening to pianist Mulgrew Miller, who died at just 57 years old on May 29. His is the latest passing in what’s been a sad few months for pianists: Dave Brubeck’s death was well noted last December, Don Shirley’s less so in April, and Miller’s very much so, especially by his fellow musicians, in late May. (And it’s been a sad few years for fans of the piano before that: Ray Bryant, Hank Jones, Andrew Hill, Oscar Peterson, etc.)

In my collection I found two CDs of Miller’s and a 1990 record — which would make it one of the last I bought — in their alphabetical places. I played them for five straight days and wondered why I didn’t have more.

That could hardly be Miller’s fault. “Mulgrew is very much in demand and finds it difficult to say no — particularly to people whose music he appreciates,” wrote producer Orrin Keepnews on Miller’s 1990 album From Day to Day.

Miller must have been as generous in his musical tastes as contemporaries said he was personally — Miller once estimated he played on 500 albums. It’s possible he wasn’t exaggerating, but if not it begs credulity to wonder when he also had time to teach at Williams Paterson University

“If the jazz world had a most valuable player award, pianist Mulgrew Miller would be a leading contender . . .,” James Hale wrote in 1993 for the Ottawa Citizen in advance of a Miller concert there.

That wasn’t just because of the frequency of Miller’s playing, but the quality of it. Fellow pianist Eric Reed called Miller “the most influential jazz pianist since Keith Jarrett.” (Ironic that Jarrett was born and grew up outside of Allentown, Pa.; Miller, a native of Mississippi, settled in nearby Easton, Pa. When asked by the newspaper there why, Miller said that he “heard (Easton) was the jazz mecca of the world”).

And yet Miller led and played discreetly. Even on his albums, Miller didn’t dominate. Kenny Garrett’s sax or Eddie Henderson’s trumpet were just as noticeable on the album Hand in Hand pictured above as Miller’s piano, if not always as memorable.

Every obituary or appreciation of Miller last week described his playing as “soulful,” as if it were a band mate. His Mississippi roots were evident. It was there that he first, as a young boy, heard Peterson and was inspired by him (as a young boy, Peterson first heard Art Tatum and was intimidated by his playing. Fortunately, he got over it).

Miller grew to be a big man, 6-foot-2 and wide, which presented a contradiction. said, “Miller’s entrance to the stage resembled a giant stalking a Steinway . . . ” but he “commanded a presence that would soon be overshadowed by the graceful notes of his craft . . .”

Wrote Hale: “Everything he plays sounds like it’s from his heart. He plays with emotion, and always swings.”

Maybe that’s why bassist Christian McBride cited the words of Duke Ellington on his Facebook page upon Miller’s death: “We loved you madly.” And why he challenged those who love jazz. “I hope every self-respecting jazz musician and fan,” wrote McBride, “takes this day to reflect upon all the music he left us.”

McBride was wrong in only one respect. It should take more than a day.

Below is a link to Grew’s Tune, off the 1993 album Hand in Hand:

%d bloggers like this: